Ginny Olson builds bridges to Armenia and Turkey

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Ginny B. Olson (MBA ’04) was one of 14 participants from North Carolina selected to travel to Armenia and Turkey this summer to develop joint community-based projects through a program called “Young Armenia/Young Turkey/Young America: Social and Economic Challenges for Future Leaders: Grassroots Development in a Modern Democracy.” Olson is senior project manager for the global Web marketing team at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C.

How were you selected for the program?

The program was geared towards young professionals in North Carolina’s nonprofit sector, as well as those working in civil society organizations in Armenia and Turkey. The application process was heavily essay-based to gauge the level of leadership experience each participate would bring to the program, and how each participant might benefit professionally and personally from the program. The International Affairs Council in Raleigh reviewed applications and recommended a “short-list” from which the Academy for Educational Development in Washington, D.C., made the final cut.

Does this fit it with the work you do at the Center for Creative Leadership?

I work closely with CCL’s campuses in Brussels and Singapore to maintain and enhance their presence on the Internet, so I was excited about the opportunity to learn more about how to build strong, working relationships across cultures.

What did you do while you were there?

We arrived in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, after two days of travel, and spent the next six days visiting NGOs in Yerevan and Vanadzor, the third largest city in Armenia, and enjoying the cultural assets of the country: Garnie, a reconstructed Greek temple; Haghbad, a monastery complex founded in 976; and the Catholicos of All Armenians, one of the two major religious centers in Armenia.

We spent six days in Ankara and Istanbul to learn about the NGO environment there. Turkey is an interesting country. Ankara is positioned as a center of modernity, while Istanbul is one of Europe’s major cultural hubs. In Istanbul, you can find ancient Christian elements preserved among beautiful Islamic mosques.

What was your most meaningful experience?

There’s so much to share, it’s hard to choose. I’ll focus on one fun experience. While exploring Istanbul’s Spice Bizarre, full of busy shoppers and merchants and incredible smells, I noticed an older man, wearing a colorful vest, selling tea. He was decked out with a gigantic silver tea pot strapped to his back, and along his belt he carried a collection of tea cups. When a customer made a purchase, he pulled out a cup, and then, like the children’s song, “I’m a little tea pot, short and stout,” he simply tipped over and poured into the cup the steeping dark liquid from the kettle on his back!

Now that you’re back home, what’s the follow up for the program?

I love the idea that I now have friends across the globe and am grateful for email and Facebook, which help us keep our connections alive. I also hope to strengthen my relationships, personally and professionally, with the other North Carolina participants, a very talented bunch.

We formed several cross-cultural project teams during the program, and it will be exciting to see which groups implement their projects. The projects range from training youth about the importance of goal-setting to ethnographic initiatives, such as capturing the stories of women from all walks of life in each country.

What did you learn from the experience?

One of the things I reflected upon during the trip was the age and depth of culture in Europe. For the US, the founding of our nation can be traced back to 1607. Whereas, in Turkey, you can find Homer’s Troy or explore the palace where the Ottoman Empire’s sultan lived. In Armenia, you can visit the first nation to adopt Christianity as its state religion, in 301 A.D., and whose empire at one time incorporated present-day Syria.

Over the centuries, the Turkish and Armenian people have seen significant changes: their nation’s borders have ebbed and flowed, their ruling parties have conquered or been vanquished. In fact, Mt. Ararat looms large over Yerevan – Mt. Ararat, once the property of Armenia, now sits within the borders of Turkey.

During this trip, I was confronted by the notion of how young the US is. What stories will our great grandchildren tell about our nation’s successes and disappointments? What will be our path as a nation over the next 100 years? How will we as citizens evolve over the next 1,000?

What professors have influenced your career and life?

I have kept in touch with Bill Davis. His Organizational Behavior and Negotiation classes made a significant impact on me. I’ve revisited my class notes often, particularly concerning the importance of interpersonal relationships in the workplace, and believe his teachings have made me a more self-aware professional. I actually emailed him while I was in Yerevan in the midst of a session on leadership so that I could share some of his tips about the 5 Levels of Leadership with my fellow participants.

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